With skills shortages in key industries bringing low pay and poor conditions into the media spotlight, workers are arguably in a stronger position to make demands than we have been for some time. But if the interim results of our workplace survey are anything to go by, it won’t all be plain sailing. Here we outline seven of the biggest questions raised in the responses so far, and set out our plans for exploring them further over the next few months.

The Class Composition Project kicked off in February 2021, with the aim of producing a first full report by the end of the year. We launched our workplace survey in April, and with 250 responses received at the start of the summer, we took advantage of the lack of sunshine to spend some time digging into them. Respondents shed light on the key issues in their workplaces, and our analysis so far is pointing to some emerging trends.

Have we said goodbye to the standard working week?

Of the 250 initial responses to the survey that we took into account for this interim report, only 58 people reported that they work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. Among those working the same days each week, there were 31 different patterns of days, and among those working the same hours each day, there were 59 different hours patterns, pointing to a significant diversification of the working week.

Just over half of the sample (55%) said that they work Monday to Friday, but only 7 people worked the second most common days pattern of Monday to Thursday, with even fewer people working one of the other 29 patterns of days mentioned. Hours patterns are even more varied, with just 72 respondents working the most common pattern of 9 to 5. In addition to this, a quarter of the survey sample said that they did not work the same hours each day or the same days each week.

This finding raises many questions, and will be an area of focus for the Class Composition Project over the coming months. We’ll be gathering additional survey data to further test these initial findings, and exploring what the implications (positive and negative) of this seeming shift towards diversification of the working week are for family and community life, overtime pay, mental health and our ability to organise.

Is London weighting under threat?

London allowance or London weighting is an addition to workers’ salaries which reflects both the higher cost of living and the higher level of competition for workers in the capital than elsewhere in the country. It is typically in the region of £2,500 to £4,500 and employers sometimes differentiate between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ London, with inner London commanding the highest supplement. There is emerging evidence that some employers are questioning the need to continue paying London allowances with office-based workers shifting to home working in many instances.

The Goodlord dispute that we wrote about here is the highest-profile example of this so far, with the employer arguing that workers should move out of the capital in response to a pay cut amounting to several thousand pounds a year. The survey revealed that Goodlord is not the only employer beginning to test the water on this.

Attacks on allowances, if allowed to gather momentum, never remain confined to small numbers of employers. Overtime pay, and unsocial hours pay for evenings and weekends, while once commonplace, have become unheard of in less well-organised sectors of the economy, such as retail, where employers have argued that these hours are not ‘unsociable’ for many part-time workers, in particular students. We see resisting any attacks on London allowances as crucial over the coming months. We will seek to gather as much information as we can to evidence where this is happening, and bring together workers resisting such attacks.

The survey asks in detail about experiences at work during the pandemic. The initial analysis showed that the pandemic provided the opportunity for both formal and informal acts of resistance, from industrial action ballots to workplace petitions and refusals to work in unsafe conditions. As workplaces ease back into ‘business as usual’, we’re interested in hearing about any continuations of refusals and resistance.

What are the likely key lines of attack?

We asked respondents whether their employers are imposing or attempting to impose changes in their workplace. The most commonly-mentioned change was attacks on terms on conditions, mentioned by 49 respondents. Pension changes are particularly worrying workers in the education sector and the education sector working group will be considering how to organise around this. Some respondents also mentioned new hires being brought in on worse terms or different contracts and restructures or redundancies and pay freezes or pay restraint were also common.

Home/hybrid working was common throughout the pandemic, and employers are clearly grappling with whether to re-open their offices, and if so, what this should look like. A dispersed workforce is clearly an additional challenge for workers aiming to organise at work, and we will explore ideas for overcoming this in more detail over the coming months.

Deskilling occurs when employers allocate work usually done by someone on a particular grade or with a particular qualification to someone on a lower grade or who does not have that qualification. Our initial results show this happening in two places - the construction industry and schools. In construction, employers tried some years ago to introduce a lower-skilled ‘installer’ grade as part of their proposed Building Engineering Services National Agreement. Workers successfully fought off this attack the first time around, but it has arisen again in the electrical contracting industry. Similarly in schools, for some years Higher Level Teaching Assistants have been teaching classes, itself an example of deskilling. But now, some headteachers are asking Teaching Assistants with no additional qualifications to teach classes, and paying the HLTA rate only for the teaching hours.

Are outsourced workers seen as second-class colleagues?

Around half of respondents said there were outsourced or agency workers in their workplace. We asked if outsourced workers are treated differently to directly-employed staff, and the answer was a resounding yes. Although a small number of respondents talked about highly-skilled agency workers being paid more than directly-employed staff, most responses mentioned worse conditions, such as lower pay, precarity, not being eligible for benefits such as pensions and poor treatment.

Some of the ways in which outsourced staff were treated differently, although not as commonly mentioned, were equally noteworthy. Some respondents wrote about outsourced workers not being given access to the equipment or resources needed to do the job or not being eligible for training or progression. Others mentioned that agency workers were treated badly during the Covid-19 pandemic, being expected to work in the riskiest situations and not eligible for furlough.

But from the perspective of the Notes from Below editors, perhaps the most serious finding from the perspective of workplace organising, was that outsourced workers are treated badly not just by employers, but also sometimes by fellow workers and even unions, which do not seem interested in organising with them. We recognise that the reasons for this are complex, but we’d like to work with both outsourced workers and those who work alongside them to try and articulate the tensions over the course of the Class Composition Project, so that we can make a collective case for an alternative.

Do we need to rethink the differences with supervisors and managers?

There is some evidence in the survey sample of line management or supervisory responsibilities being applicable to workers at the lower end of the earnings distribution. Some 27% of respondents said that they supervised or managed other staff, and while this was most prevalent in the second-highest earnings band (half of those earning £40,001 to £50,000), one in ten respondents earning under £20,000 and one in five respondents earning £20,001 to £30,000 also said that they are supervisors or line managers.

We know that in low-paying industries, like retail and distribution, the difference in hourly rates between entry-grade and supervisory or even management staff is often small. It is also not clear how much control lower paid supervisors or managers have over the work of others or their own work.

Is it not that bad, really?

We asked respondents to record to what extent they agree or disagree with a series of statements, such as ‘staff are treated with respect’ and ‘there is a good relationship between senior managers and staff’. The results here are surprising. For most of the questions, only around a third of respondents gave their employer a negative rating, with two exceptions. Two-fifths (43%) of respondents disagreed that staff are paid fairly for the work that they do, and over half (55%) disagreed that staff are able to influence company decisions. We hope to boost the results to these questions over the next couple of months to strengthen and test the findings, but we’ll also be opening up a discussion on what these findings mean for how we organise, should the final tally show a broadly similar picture.

Do unions really want active members?

Almost a third of respondents to our question about their involvement in their union spoke about barriers to involvement. Different respondents mentioned different barriers, though there were some common themes. The proportion of survey respondents that said they were in a unionised workplace or in a workplace with union presence is significantly above the UK average, which makes it even more worrying that so many mentioned barriers to involvement. If this is the experience of our respondents, what is the experience of those less inclined to participate in a workers inquiry project, or in a less well organised workplace?

Each barrier mentioned raises its own questions. Some respondents mentioned having too much work or too little free time to be actively involved. How can the trade union movement address this, and create less time-consuming ways for members to be involved, or ensure that where members do become active, this is seen as a meaningful way of spending limited free time?

Other respondents said that it was difficult to get involved, that there was no communication with members, or that attempts to contact the union had been futile. This was especially significant for outsourced workers, especially those who moved between several different workplaces and had never met another member. How can we put pressure on those already embedded in union branch structures to ensure that new member engagement is a priority?

Two slightly different but related barriers were that the union branch is not active, or not fighting on the issues that are relevant to members, and that the respondent has had a bad experience with the union. How can we win an argument for fighting, worker-led, unions?

Finally, some respondents mentioned that the specific characteristics of their workplace were not conducive to trade union activity. This sentiment was particularly prevalent among charity workers, and those who worked in small workplaces with a benevolent boss or a ‘family’ feel. Should we be organising to challenge this reluctance among certain sections of the workforce?

The ultimate aim of the Class Composition Project is to support worker organising, by providing access to the sorts of information that bosses have at their disposal, and creating a space for networks of workers to come together to organise collectively around industries and issues. In that regard, we will either need to break down these barriers to union involvement, or explore new options for organising.

What next?

If you’ve personally experienced any of the things we’ve talked about in this article, we hope you’ll join us in the next few months as we seek to understand each of them more deeply. We’ll be organising discussions, sending out polls and requests for people to share their experiences, and of course, aiming to get more responses to our survey ahead of it closing at the end of October. If you haven’t had a chance to fill it in yet, there’s still time to make sure your experience is captured.

We’re also now launching our worker writing fund, with small bursaries available to workers for whom lack of financial stability is a barrier to writing. If you’d like to submit a short piece of writing (up to 2,000 words) about your experience at work for inclusion in our Class Composition Project year 1 report, please get in touch with us via [email protected]. Please note we will be aiming to ensure a balance between different sectors of the economy, workers with different lived experiences and workers from a diverse range of backgrounds.


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The Editors (@NotesFrom_Below)

The Editorial collective of Notes from Below.